Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dog Sitting in Doha

If I could communicate telepathically with Jasper, the dog I am dog sitting, I imagine he would be singing jaunty little songs about us being the best of friends. This isn’t a dog-friendly community I live in and most of the children have not been taught to love dogs, so unfortunately, Jasper gets taunted regularly on our walks. When this happens, he cries and hides behind me, but when there are no children around, he resumes the skip in his step.

Once I sensed trouble before Jasper did. A bunch of children were loitering outside the Iranian school, but they weren't close enough to pose much of a threat to Jasper. Knowing what was coming, I tried to warn Jasper so he would hold his ground when the children started in with their jeers and taunts. I looked down and spoke in a conspiratorial tone, “Jasper, when these children try to scare you, I want you to bite them, okay?” Sure enough, the children started in with their howls and yelling and using their hands to mimic shooting. Jasper freaked out and hid behind me, as usual.

We went back to my apartment. I tried to take an afternoon nap and Jasper snuggled up beside me. I told him that he would need to toughen up, no more being scared of cats or the sound of a plastic bag rustling, and when I tell you to bite someone, you do it, understand? It took a while for that to sink in, about as long as it took for me to fall asleep, because he jolted me awake with a bite on my arm. He was just being playful, but I banished him from my room and closed the door.

He still acts like a puppy and is definitely more of a handful than I had expected. Although I must compliment him on his fashion sense, I’m not happy about what he did after finding my brand-new shoes. He knocked them down off a high shelf and then chewed them beyond recognition.

It doesn't do any good to try to avoid the children by walking Jasper at night. They are out at all hours, playing in the parking lot with no adult supervision. I think these children never go to bed. Their parents must say to them, “Okay kids, put on your dark clothing and go play in the parking lot in the dark. I’ll be inside watching TV.”

Tonight the feral children ran up to Jasper, yelled at him and then ran away. They made a game of it, but I’m not exactly sure what the objective was. It was either to see who could get closest to the dog or who could scare him the most, but thankfully, a woman walked by and I was able to enlist her help. She yelled at the children in Arabic, something I wish I could do.  Unfortunately, she also scared Jasper, which is not hard to do. Hopefully, whatever that woman yelled will stop those kids from harassing poor Jasper.  He has enough problems as it is. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Where'd You Get Those Cheezits?

Tonight I ate Krispy Kremes and watched “The Perks of Beinga Wallflower” with an American friend and her teenage daughter. I had read the book when I was in high school and remembered how popular it was, how it was one of those books everyone my age was reading. As I reached the custard center of my donut, my friend’s daughter explained the inner workings of the eighth-grade social scene. I found her descriptions of some of her classmates fascinating, especially in light of my interest in the young adult genre of literature.

I thought it would be especially difficult for a teenager to become acclimated to living in Qatar, but she’s doing just fine. She enjoys playing games of “Spot the Americans,” in which she approaches people looking suspiciously American and inquires about their nationality. I would like to play this game from a distance, but I’m not bold enough to approach total strangers. Still, I think it might help to break down some of the rigid antisocial attitudes in this city.

Sometimes this game produces something useful, like information on where to buy imported American snack foods. After seeing a man eating from a box of Cheezits, she approached him and asked if he was American, followed by a blunt “Where’d you get those Cheezits?”

Don't you just love teenagers?

Friday, October 19, 2012

How Will She React?

This week on “How Will She React?” (a made-up show; don’t look for it on your cable listings), an American contestant named Meriwether is offended by a boorish Brit, who informs her that England is superior to America and, in fact, all other countries in the world.

The Brit boasts that the British Empire was the greatest ever, because the Brits graciously took on the burden of educating ignorant brown people, and thanks to their largesse, the world is a better place today. He recommends a long list of jingoistic movies so Meriwether can watch them and be convinced that the British Empire was a fine role model for upstarts, such as her own country. He supports his statement by telling that, while minding his own business in a bar last week, two men from India approached him and thanked him for the wonderful colonization that helped advance their nation. Beat that, you know-nothing Yank!

The show’s action freezes while an audience member is chosen to spin the big wheel on stage to answer the question: How will Meriwether react to this bloke?

Cast your vote now! Here are the options: “Stare tiredly into her beer glass while meekly mouthing the words, ‘Shut your pie hole,’” or “Mount a counter argument, supplying plenty of supporting facts.” But maybe, if it’s been a hormone-enhanced and rather difficult day out here in the desert, the arrow could point to “Fight the urge to cry and sniffle, ‘Why are you being so mean to me?’”

A woman from the audience bounds on stage and sets the wheel in motion. After several rotations and much nervous hand wringing from everyone in the audience, the arrow stops on “Mount a counter argument, supplying plenty of supporting facts.” Phew!

Meriwether argues that the English spread of civilization was often little more than the spread of syphilization. Many regions of the world remain as unstable as when the sun finally set on the British Empire.

. . . . . . But what’s this? The Brit does not admit defeat. There’s a twist in this week’s show. He reloads and turns to another contestant, a South African woman who is an animal lover. Now he is saying that rhino poaching is all right in his book. Hunting is fun and besides, zoos will keep rhinos from going extinct. How will the South African animal lover react? Find out on next week’s episode of “How Will She React?”

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Me and You

In dangerous situations, when the heart is exhilarated, people are more susceptible to falling in love. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I think that must be Niccolo Ammaniti’s trick in getting readers to fall in love with his characters. “Me and You” tells the story of Lorenzo, a socially awkward boy who hides in a cellar to cover up a lie that he went skiing with friends for a week. In reality, he doesn’t have any friends, but his mother looked so pleased when Lorenzo announced this plan, he couldn’t own up to his lie.

The character Lorenzo is so genuine. Reading about him is a privilege because you get a chance to know him at an interesting stage of life, before he grows up. Although he’s hiding from the world, his character is completely revealed to readers. He has a wonderful imagination. He envisions himself carrying out secret missions and saving the world when really he’s just trying not to be discovered in his secret hideout.

We never find out if Lorenzo had to fess up to his lie. I assume that he didn’t, that his secret stayed safe between him and another central character. The book is sandwiched between two snippets of Lorenzo as an adult, but we don’t learn much about him as an adult, which is the way it should be. I’m thinking of Don Delillo’s book “Underworld” and how the portrayal of Nick as an adult ruined the novel for me. If the reader is only given a glimpse of a character, it’s like recalling a happy memory, maybe of a time you were in love before the relationship went to hell or a magical time during childhood when you lived in the moment, instead of always thinking about what needed to be done or regretting a bushel of mistakes, as adults often do.

Niccolo Ammaniti has been called a modern day Charles Dickens for his compassionate portrayals of children. This is the second book by him that has blown me away, the first being “I’m Not Scared.” He really is a perfect story teller. I read “Me and You” on a park bench and as I ambled back home, I let a parade of blissful memories cross my mind, just small details of life. I remembered when I was 19, sitting by a lake next to a man who softly massaged my hands, while I talked incessantly about who knows what, trying to act oblivious to him wanting to kiss me. I remembered, as a kid, considering a friend’s comment that the smell of pavement after rain was identical to the smell of eggs in a frying pan. And I remembered the two times in my life that a boyfriend cooked me breakfast. If I were to drag these stories on they would turn bitter and I’m pretty sure readers would lose interest.

The magic of Niccolo Ammaniti’s writing is that he knows when to stop, how to supply his readers with just enough information to leave them satisfied. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Look Divine

In between satisfying intakes of Christopher Coe’s slim masterpiece, “I Look Divine,” I paused to contemplate the content of the fan letter I would write to him. I also imagined us meeting and talking about literature at a sidewalk café in Paris since his author biography stated that he split his time between Paris and New York. It always seemed to be an indication of sophistication and worldliness to state that you split your time between two big cities.

This book is tragic because its main character, Nicholas, is inflicted with too much self-love. This posterboy of vanity loves anything that reflects his own image, such as lacquered tables and mirror frames with shots of himself inside. The story is told by his brother, who is fascinated by his brother’s pretentious vocabulary, calculated expressions and manipulative games. Although Nicholas was declared a genius when he was a child and had outshone him at nearly everything, the narrator seems to view Nicholas tragically because he knows that if Nicholas determines his value in his looks, there is nothing to envy.

When I searched for more information about Christopher Coe, I was mainly hoping he had written more than one book. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might have died, but it turns out that in 1994, this talented writer died of AIDS. At least I have one thing to be glad about. Christopher Coe wrote another book called "Such Times," which I hope to enjoy as much as “I Look Divine.” 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

I absolutely adored this movie. Set in the 1970's, this film tells the story of Alice, a widowed housewife who hits the road with her twelve-year-old son, wanting to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a singer. Her struggle to make ends meet in a male-dominated world is doubled by her debilitating need to always have a man around. 

The script injects just the right amount of humor during tense scenes. Even the theatrical romantic scene at the end has a moment of subtle comic relief delivered by one of Alice's waitress co-workers.

One abusive man after another shatters Alice's false sense of security and ultimately builds her strength. So when Mr. Right, played by Kris Kristofferson, enters her life, her new-found strength and independence come into play as she learns that she can have it all in life: the man and the career. She has also learned how to convey her needs, loud and clear, with respect topping the list.

Martin Scorsese, when taking on the job as director, told the leading lady, Ellen Burstyn, that he knew nothing about women, but he'd like to learn. Burstyn found his modesty refreshing and a stark contrast to the male characters who keep coming into Alice's life.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Ich Liebe Nuremberg!

Upon hearing the city's name Nuremberg most people think of the Nuremberg trails, where Nazi war criminals were brought to justice, but I found the city to be a world of its own, full of charm and tranquility. I took the fast train from Munich, where I was staying with a friend. The train ride took less than an hour, and although I only spent one day in Nuremberg and it was raining, I'm so glad I had the good judgement to check out this fascinating city.

I loved the pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. As soon as I got off the train I found the tourist information office, picked up a map, bought a cool umbrella, and I was on my way! I visited several old churches, where I admired the stained glass windows, walked along the city walls and visited the Christmas Market, which is an ordinary farmers market for most of the year. I found the people to be genuinely friendly and the food to be absolutely delicious.

I will try to go back for the holidays, maybe this year, and definitely stay longer than one day.

This is a memorial to the White Rose group at the University of Munich. The brave members of the White Rose were arrested and beheaded by the Nazis in 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Post Kerfuffle Unruffling

The heat wave is finally over and I'll be able to sleep well tonight. The other night my two hours of damp sleep were muddled with disorienting dreams of packing. I was fleeing from one place to another, my suitcase and duffel bag a garble of clothes and art supplies. I threw my things inside as if frantically trying to patch up a hole in boat. People stood in my way, staring at me vacantly, wanting to chat and not realizing the distress of the situation. One of my friends helped--in a loose definition of the word "help"--but for the most part just sat on my bed with my laptop, scrolling down my Facebook page and commenting on my photos.

I'm staying at my friend's house while she's in Alaska and trying to write by hand ten pages a day. When I'm not writing, I'm filling my time with the laziest activities I can think of, mainly drinking lattes with friends. The last three months of crazy adventures have started to sink in. I've had plenty of time to lie in my friend's hammock and let my thoughts catch up with all that's happened.

I figure Istanbul is one of those amazing cities that should leave me in awe of my surroundings, not of my survival skills. I've seen the hairy underbelly of Istanbul, warts and all, and I should just go back when the time is right, when I can really enjoy myself without any complications.

I was telling my friend Judith that I'm trying to strengthen my intuition, and be a better judge of character. At home, I have a tightly-knit trusted network of friends, but when traveling, it's difficult to tell who's trustworthy and who isn't. I envy people like Judith, who have a built-in security software for their lives. I wish acquiring this knowledge were as simple as pressing a button and waiting for it to install, but life experience seems to be the only route.

Yesterday my friend Jess and I went fishing near Mt. Hood. The fishing was secondary as what really appealed to me was lounging in a boat and talking the afternoon away. We didn't catch anything, but enjoyed the beautiful scenery and each other's company. I told her I was recovering from shock after an ex messaged me telling me had gotten married on the spur of a whim. Two years ago I thought I'd be the woman to walk down that aisle toward him, or, as I'd call it now, that passage of imminent doom. Jess and I agreed that it was better his mystery wife than me.

It's time to chill out to relaxing music and get my other writing done, not that I'm living by a schedule or anything. Until next time.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Magic Iftar Moment

Tonight something magical happened. I went to Iftar, the evening meal Muslims eat to break their daily fasts during Ramadan. Feeling exhausted after a busy day, I told my mother I wasn't in a gregarious mood and asked her not to volunteer me to tell any stories to the group, as she usually does. Obeying this wish was apparently against her nature because my mother feels it's her duty to goad me into telling stories whenever there is a listener in the room. If I say no I seem grouchy, so I usually just have to play along.

Well, for once I'm glad she prodded me to tell a story I didn't want to tell. Why, you ask, was I so against telling the story to begin with? Well, for one, all I could think about was getting into bed and falling asleep to the new Muppet movie. And what's worse, she wanted me to describe the book I'm writing. Exposing my creative process makes me feel vulnerable, but nevertheless, I described my book, which is based on a true story.The book tells the story of an enduring friendship between two women bearing the same name, but one bearing the burden of a horrific past as an Auschwitz survivor. One of the women is my friend, whom I'd spent most of this afternoon with trying to gather more information. The other, older woman passed away before I ever learned about her. I'd been feeling frustrated that I didn't know more about her. 

But as I reluctantly described my project to a woman at our table, she seemed to recognize the story. It turns out this person actually knew the woman I'm writing about. And she offered to share her memories and to put me in touch with other people who knew the woman personally. 

So just this once, being social against my will produced a delightful and magical result. Now if you'll pardon my bad manners, I really must bail on this blog entry. The Muppet movie awaits. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Going Home

This is the enchanting sound my friend Amy gets to hear from her living room window in the neighborhood of Sultan Ahmet. I’m going home to Portland, Oregon on July 24th and hearing the call to prayer will be one of the nice memories I will take with me. Perhaps I’ll replay this video from time to time to mentally transport myself back to Istanbul. I’m looking forward to going home for a visit after 15 months of globetrotting. 

I love how appreciative Turks are. If they like you, they will genuinely reflect that in their words and actions. Recently I was stopped in my neighborhood by a woman who works at a bookstore, just so she could thank me for smiling every day when I pass her store.

Amy and I hung out in her neighborhood tonight and talked about uplifting topics: love and writing, getting published and the ways in which we considered ourselves lucky. I said I regretted leaving so many great friends, including a great guy. Despite hitting it off with him, he told me early on that he didn’t want anything serious and I had to concur. Sometimes the awesome people we meet, whether they’re friends or lovers, just show up temporarily to remind us that we deserve to have terrific people in our lives.

Monday, July 9, 2012


On Friday, my friend Semiha showed me Çengelköy, a neighborhood in Uskudar on the Asian side of Istanbul. We went to a famous café called Tarihi Çınaraltı Aile Çay Bahçesi, which, if my memory is halfway decent, means “Family Tea Garden Under a Tree,” or something along those lines. The selling point of this place and the reason for its popularity does not lie primarily in its proximity to a big tree, but in its fabulous location, right on the Bosporus.

Semiha took many pictures of me with the gorgeous scenery in the background and while she was angling my camera and playing with the settings to achieve the best shots, a strange little girl squirted her with her squirt gun. I love children, even the ones who start unwarranted squirt gun fights, and thought it was even stranger and slightly amusing that the girl's mother and her friends sat close by chatting and drinking tea, completely oblivious to the bored girl's assault on my friend.

Afterward, we took a visit to chocolate heaven, a cozy little shop where the confectioners combine Turkish coffee with hot chocolate. Because it was Friday, a holy day in Islam, they had closed the shop to go pray. So we went to the seaside and relaxed for a bit, before going back to the shop to enjoy some intense chocolaty beverages and chill out to some traditional Turkish music.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In Our Hearts We Were Giants

“In Our Hearts We Were Giants” tells the story of the Ovitzes, a family of seven dwarves who survived imprisonment and experimentation at Auschwitz. In the first part of the book, the authors, Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, gave an interesting historical account of how dwarves have been regarded in Jewish culture, which was comparatively more civilized than, say, Ancient Rome, where dwarves had to compete in gladiator tournaments or in Australia, where dwarf bowling was an actual sport.

The Ovitzes formed a family act called The Lilliput Troupe. They were so successful that before they were captured and sent to Auschwitz, they owned the first car in their town of Rozavlea, Hungary and were well-known for always wearing lavish clothes and accessories.

The authors interviewed the Ovitzes’ neighbors in Rozavlea who claimed they remembered the Ovitzes fondly. The treatment they received was so different from most European Jews at the time that they weren’t terribly concerned about Germany’s rise to power and remained oblivious to the amount of danger they were in, protected by identification papers which claimed they were non-Jews.

When they exited the cattle car after arriving at Auschwitz, they handed the SS guards their business cards, as if they were meeting fans after a performance. Their charm and charisma, as well as their fluency in German, worked in their favor and earned them special privileges in Auschwitz. This made other prisoners jealous, including Sara Nomberg-Przytyk, who wrote the book “Auschwitz: True Tales from a Grotesque Land.” The authors discredit some of Przytyk’s stories, such as Shinshon Ovitz, only 18 months old, being killed by Josef Mengele. In reality, he grew up and emigrated to Israel. The authors excused Przytyk’s inaccuracies. After all, when you are surrounded by death and everyone merges into a huge mass of victims, it’s hard to get all your facts straight.

This book provides a great character study of Josef Mengele, and that was the main reason I wanted to read it. The authors also provide interesting information on Dina Babbit, who was saved by her artistic talent and given a job painting portraits of prisoners to illustrate what the Nazis believed were their degenerate racial characteristics. I wish the authors had done a better job of showing the Ovitzes’ unique characteristics, a written version of the kinds of portraits Dina would paint, so I could feel as though I knew them individually. The characters feel aloof, but overall, this was a very interesting book.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Last Evenings on Earth

I love writers who break the rules. Roberto Bolano is like the cool, mysterious boyfriend who rides a motorcycle, whom you know your parents disapprove of, but you go out with him anyway. His writing felt like a guilty pleasure to me, like listening to gossip, and despite the unfamiliar settings and haziness of the information provided, I stuck around until the end. His stories are sparse, full of telling, not showing, lacking in both dialogue and action, yet somehow, I was hooked. Common themes in Last Evenings on Earth are friendship, loss, rejection, failure and early death. While reading, I felt as if the stories were being told to me by a shadowy figure in a hot stuffy bar with the lights turned off to keep the room cooler. Even with lukewarm beer and flies buzzing, sizzling skin and cigarette smoke wafting past my face, I remained a captive audience.

People talk about Roberto Bolano’s death at 50 as being a great loss to literature, like he’s the the David Foster Wallace of the Spanish-speaking world. He wrote two massive novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, which received wide critical acclaim. Like Infinite Jest, these books are big ambitious works, so I  think I’ll wait until I reach the end of these tomes before I gripe about how there aren't any left. The literary table is resplendent with stacks of books to keep me busy for quite some time. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Adventures in Istanbul

I’m sorry, green beans and eggplant. I misjudged you, but only because I ate some disgusting eggplant dish at an upscale restaurant where I had to discreetly spit the offensive substance into my napkin and quickly rinse my mouth with water, and because of all those pitiable school lunches in elementary school when I was served some green bean slop in one of the little compartments of my plastic tray. I’m so glad I have come to Turkey where eggplant and green beans have had the opportunity to redeem themselves in my eyes, and my mouth. After all, everybody deserves a second chance. Turks can do no harm to food and I’m lucky to have found a man who is an amazing cook. I know that was quick. I mean, I haven’t even unpacked and already, I’ve found someone. I enjoy watching him cook, because he treats cooking like a science. With Turkish pop music playing, he’ll roast an eggplant directly on the stove’s burner, peel it, dice it up, stir in some crushed garlic and pour melted butter and chili powder over the top. The other night, he made a fantastic green bean stew. When the call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque, he turned down the music out of respect.

I’m really happy. In the beginning, I wasn't so sure everything would be okay. I've been falling asleep to the sound of street music, yowls from stray cats mating, and chatter from people socializing. I’m feeling relaxed these days, and now that I've gone shopping, I don’t have to worry quite so much about my sartorial likeness to Velma from Scooby Doo.

Below are some photos taken from a great spot in Uskudar, and me dressed as a Turkish soccer fan. 
Until next time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Food Tour and Topkapi Palace

Over coffee yesterday, I told my Turkish conversation partner about the food tour I went on last Friday.

“Where did you go?” he asked.

“To lots of restaurants,” I said. I listed all the wonderful things I ate, trying to remember all the ingredients.

“But why did you eat so much food?” he asked.

“Because it was a food tour.” Eventually he figured out that I was saying “food tour” and not “foot tour."

The food tour, arranged by the company “Istanbul Eats,” deepened my appreciation for Turkish cuisine. Now I know the best places to buy olives, cheese, Turkish delight and coffee, in addition to knowing a whole array of restaurants where I can satisfy all my cravings. My favorite of all the restaurants we visited was called Siirt Seref. It was the last stop on our 6-hour tour and although I was stuffed, I couldn’t pass up all the exquisite food set before me. I took notes the whole time, which I realized wasn’t all that necessary, because Megan, our guide, gave us all a copy of the Istanbul Eats book, which includes all the places we visited and plenty of others, and even includes a little Turkish glossary of food-related words in the back.

I went on the tour thinking I could use my newfound knowledge to give my mom a tour when she visits me, but now I am thinking she might enjoy the tour led by Megan, who went through the same Middle East Studies program as my mom at the University of Chicago. Even though I live in Istanbul, I would definitely go on another tour with Istanbul Eats, seeing how it’s a great way to meet people and receive insider information.

I met some nice people on the tour, all American and all on vacation. After the tour, some newlyweds named Jeremy and Suzie invited me to walk around Topkapi Palace with them, where we puzzled over the long sleeves and pointy pants of the Ottoman clothing on display. I liked the clothing the best and I wished there was a runway fashion show so I could see how these clothes looked on people. Jeremy made me laugh by pretending to be a haughty sultan and saying to an imaginary servant, “Bring me my shirt with the extra long sleeves and the pants with the pointy butt.” I learned from someone later that the point actually goes in the front, which is good to know. Now if I ever put on a pair of those pants, I can spare myself the embarrassment of wearing them backwards. I don’t want to look silly, after all. (:

My second favorite part of visiting Topkapi Palace was seeing all the suits of armor and swords. I wondered how many bodies the sharp edges had slashed through. I’m morbid, I know. Some of the swords were so long, I couldn’t imagine how they were used. I think I would die from exertion just trying to lift one of those things.

After walking around the harem for about an hour, all the rooms started to look the same. Seeing all the jewels in glass cases was less interesting than the clothes and swords because I remembered seeing them five years ago when I first visited Topkapi Palace. I shuffled past all the cases, thinking, “Giant diamond, been there, done that. Emerald dagger, seen it. Fancy pearl throne, yawn. Gold cradle, meh. More ruby and diamond medals that belonged to some sultan or Persian king, booooooooring.”

We left Topkapi Palace and walked down some cool streets full of shops and restaurants. Suzie and I got to talking about dieting. She’d had great luck with the Quantum Wellness Cleanse, Kathy Freston’s plan. But we had just spent the day tasting some of the best food Istanbul has to offer. I can’t imagine how the subject came up!

This guy on the right is making cocorec, a sandwich made with lamb, sweet bread, intestines, wild thyme and red pepper. It was delicious. 

Perde pilavi, made with rice, pine nuts, chicken and some other delicious ingredients. 

Pomegranate and molasses. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
Kunefe, my favorite. It has cheese inside!